Photos by Roc Morin
We twisted up into the sky beneath a blur of rotors—mum in the numb motor din. The shadow of our helicopter flit below, yawing in the undulations of the sorrel earth, hurtling peaks, and hurling into dark valleys.
My military escort Lieutenant Cartagena and I took off from Mazar-i-Sharif, a city built 900 years ago in desolation—the site revealed in a prophetic dream. From the scattered earthen villages that passed beneath our craft to the army outpost we sought, every settlement seemed tinged with that same fantastic quality—accidents of life in a dead land.
We reunited with our shadow on the airstrip of a base in Baghlan province that I am not permitted to name. I jumped onto the tarmac, squinting through the heat blast. We had come to witness the successful passage of a NATO prison and military base into Afghan hands.
The American soldiers of Blackfoot Troop bounded out to meet us. They were tall and strong, engendering visions of Thanksgiving dinners in places like Battle Creek, Michigan, and Louisville, Kentucky. There was Lieutenant King, Sergeant Morgan, and their corpsman Specialist Singer. They welcomed us by asking our blood types—something practical and still somehow strangely intimate. They hustled us away, out of sight of the mountains, through the gauntlet of concrete T-walls and gravel-filled HESCO barriers that formed the outpost.
We received our briefing in the barracks, leered at by a grinning cartoon skeleton drawn onto the wall in black magic marker. King gestured to a map nailed up beside it. “This is us, sir,” he stated, pointing to a dot near the bottom. “And this,” he continued, sweeping his hand over nearly a thousand square kilometers, “is our platoon’s area of operations.” He pointed again to a mark about five klicks away. “Just to give you an idea: it takes us 45 minutes to get here.”
The upper third of the map encompassed a slice of the Kandahari Belt, a mountainous region still occupied by the Taliban. “They have so much freedom to maneuver around there,” King explained, “because it’s very hard for us to get in unless we’re on birds. They’re definitely skilled mountain climbers compared to us. I mean, they’ve been doing it for years, growing up in it.”
“Have you tried to clear them out of there?” I asked.
“We kind of have the mindset: we don’t screw with you, you don’t screw with us.”
“Do they feel the same way?”
“We don’t know,” King shrugged as the room rang with laughter. “We just do what we have to do. Get up there and get out. So far it’s been good. Knock on wood.”
Morgan rapped his knuckles on the table.
“So,” I continued turning back to the map, “What’s the line of demarcation between the Taliban and you?”
King shook his head, “We don’t know.”
“Suit up,” came the order, “the Afghans are ready for us.” We strapped into our bulletproof vests and helmets. The men hoisted M-16s. After a while, the 30-pound vest felt like just another part of me.
We strode through the rest of the camp on our way to the gate. The place was in the process of a controlled abandonment as part of NATO’s scheduled withdrawal. Half the buildings were empty, already beginning to fill with the ubiquitous red dust that coated everything. I accepted a cigarette from King, saying that at least it would filter out some of the dust.
Blackfoot Troop would likely be the last to leave their bootprints here, sometime in 2014. They would pack up whatever the army still wanted and surrender the rest to the Afghans they had trained. That scene had already played out a year ago at the prison we were now headed to, on foot, across a volatile stretch of sand.
Beyond the gate, the soldiers fanned out, rifle snouts roving. We moved as a herd into the hot mirage-land of the heat shimmer.
The Afghans met us at the prison gate. The guards wore grey fatigues. There were handshakes all around, with palms over hearts in a gesture to convey sincerity. I seemed to be the only one who noticed in the midst of our loud maneuvers, the mute shape slipping through and diminishing into the desert over the shoulders of our hosts. The figure was cloaked in amorphous blue fabric and without a face—only the wind, here and there pulling taut the chadri garment, flashed rude glimpses of the womanly body beneath. She must have come to visit her husband, someone said.
We were escorted to a room in the administrative building to wait for the warden, Colonel Yaya. The Americans jawed on couches, slumping among slouching piles of shed rifles and vests, their weapons always within reach. The troops, Morgan noted, were in a delicate position with their Afghan counterparts. Remaining well-armed in their presence would be an insult—a sign of distrust. But, laying aside weapons would leave them vulnerable to the kind of insider attacks that have surged in recent years. Word had already reached us of an Afghan sergeant gunning down three of his trainers in a neighboring province just that week. Each unit had to find a compromise. For Blackfoot Troop, that meant leaving one man in the corridor with his finger resting just above the trigger of his M-16.
“The Taliban is extremely smart,” King added. “They’re very latent recipient. They’ll wait and wait and wait for years before they do anything. One of the high Taliban leaders could actually have a job inside this prison. If he’s not called to do something, he’s going to act like a normal person. But, when they get that phone call, they’ll immediately turn around and do what they’re supposed to do.”
Just then, Colonel Yaya entered, briskly fingering the prayer beads that never left his hand: click-click-click. His face was weathered like the landscape. He waved us into his office where framed photographs of president Hamid Karzai and warlord-martyr Ahmad Shah Massoud hung. These two figures are so revered in the north that their pictures affixed to windshields are often used in lieu of license plates. They prove that the driver has the right convictions.
As I settled into the colonel’s leather couch, Morgan leaned over. “Just a few things,” he whispered. “Don’t cross your legs, don’t show the soles of your feet, don’t ask about his wife, and make sure to drink the tea.” Yaya himself began via translator in the traditional way, thanking us effusively for honoring him with our presence. I responded in kind. Business proceeds slowly, after long pleasantries. I asked about his tenure at the compound.
The Colonel was brought in a year ago to replace his predecessor following a prison break. Yaya was now responsible for 650 inmates divided into three isolated populations. Around 500 were common criminals: murderers, rapists, and thieves. Nineteen were women, housed in another enclosure veiled by taut floral sheets. Lastly, there were about 100 insurgents. “Mostly failed suicide bombers and IED planters,” the warden stated.
Those 100 men were the reason the Colonel’s telephone was always ringing—dark voices promising death for him and his family. Yaya spoke of a recurring dream in which the convicts had escaped and were after him. He would bolt out of bed in the middle of the night, dial the prison, and insist on an immediate head count. “My one year as warden has felt like 30,” he mused with a delicate smile.
On our tour of the inner sanctum, Blackfoot Troop were asked to disarm, piling high their weapons on a flimsy folding table. The colonel led us to the empty prison school, where a shiny new book lay on every desk. He led us to a modest manufacturing facility where several inmates were weaving and tailoring shirts. He led us to cell block four. Constructed over a sinkhole, the building was shot through with fissures and on the verge of collapse. Taliban prisoners had scrawled what my interpreter called “love poems” all over it. I pointed to one and asked what it meant. He shook his head, too prideful to admit that his English wasn’t good enough to translate it.
We were led to the insurgent wing. It was just an open yard surrounded by a chain-link fence. The convicts were huddled in a far corner, crowded into the diminishing sliver of shade cast by the barracks. Each side stood facing the other. Eventually, one prisoner stepped forward, then another, gingerly at first, hesitating periodically, half curious, half wary. The boldest one, burly, bearded, and wearing a pakul reached out to touch the fence, lacing his fingers in it. He fixed me with lapis-blue eyes. The prisoner touched fingers with an Afghan guard, sharing a few jaunty words. Soon they were laughing so hard you could see the red of their throats.
Yaya raised his hand. Facing the prisoners, he spoke with a halting cadence. The inmates quickly eyed their feet. When he finished, he turned on his heels, cutting twin arcs in the dust. I watched him retreat down the wire corridor, trailed by his gamboling guards.
“What did he say?” I asked the translator.
“He say, ‘Don’t kill anyone. The Qur’an say make peace. In our religion, if man kill man, they will go to the devil.’”
At my request, the translator questioned the prisoners. What did they think about the colonel’s words?
Only their eyelids moved, flickering away the dust.
Convinced they would not answer, I turned away. And that’s when I felt it: a sharp sting on the back of my neck. “Fuck!” yawped Singer, grabbing his arm. I spun to see the prisoners crouching down. They squatted there, scanning the terrain as intently as a manuscript, searching the dirt for more stones.
Days later, surrounded by the unfurled rugs of a Kabul bazaar, a man examined the photograph I had given him. Chanting the rhythmic Pashto verses, he passed his hands over the creased and battered image of the Taliban love poem inscribed across that foundering wall.
He began again, in English:
You who judge me
I hope you burn alive and become dust
I hope you are destroyed and disappear from this universe
Your days and nights filled with sorrow and pain
Tear open my chest and see what is inside
Only then can you understand
Roc’s new book, And, was released last year. You can find more information on his website.
Techno Raving and Dead-Goat Polo at the Silk Road Festival